Heard for the first time while Natalie Portman’s Lena is painting the bedroom she once shared with the husband she hasn’t seen or heard from in a year, the unofficial theme song of Alex Garland’s stunning, glorious and confounding Annihilation is “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills & Nash. Its chorus—in which one becomes two, then three, then four—alludes to the multiplying of cells that Lena studies as a biologist, while also letting us trace the path of life and evolution both forward and backward. It’s a fitting tune to accompany the film’s themes and motifs in this way but also in another. It’s also a devastating breakup song which understands that the pain of the loss is secondary to the terror and confusion of not knowing what’s to come.
Lena and her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), haven’t broken up, though. He simply disappeared. As a secretive Special Forces member, his having to run off suddenly and with little explanation is nothing new. But a year with no contact or updates from the military has Lena contemplating the reality of a future without him. Just then, though, as she’s applying the first coat of paint to the first wall, Kane shows up, disoriented and lacking any memory of where he was. Their reunion is cut short when he has to be rushed to the hospital with unexplained internal bleeding. Eventually, Lena is filled in. Given her education and her own military experience, she is trusted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Kane’s psychologist, with the truth. Kane and his team had ventured into The Shimmer, a classified and mysterious zone that has slowly grown around a meteor crash, surrounded by waves of refracted light, impenetrable by drones, cameras or satellites. Kane’s was the last but not the first team to venture in and see what they could learn. But Kane is the first to come back. Furthermore, Ventress explains, she is about to lead the first non-military team into The Shimmer, made up of Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson). Hoping to learn what has made her husband sick and how she might heal him, Lena volunteers to come along. We are relayed the story via a framing device in which Lena, now only the second person to return from The Shimmer, is interrogated by a scientist (Benedict Wong) in a full-bodied protective suit (after Ex Machina, Annihilation continues Garland’s trend of being fascinated by slight-statured women who are nonetheless stronger than, and therefore terrifying to, the men around them). We are also treated to flashbacks depicting Lena and Kane’s happy marriage, including a shot in which she is seen to be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which makes sense for a biologist but also provides a clue to the film’s focus on life’s ability to persist by any means necessary.
Once inside The Shimmer, Garland begins to let loose with the visual design that is perhaps Annihilation’s greatest of its many strengths. Walls and skin move in hallucinatory swirls. Animals and plants become one. Human bodies are dismembered and reorganized in tableaux of artful grotesquerie reminiscent of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series. Garland’s overall look and style could perhaps be summed up as Gothic Psychedelia, both reflexively repulsive and romantically enrapturing. And that’s even before the monsters show up, bringing with them some straight up freaky horror shit.
As The Shimmer slowly expands, mutating everything within it and apparently making human life unsustainable, it’s clear that Annihilation has something to say about our ongoing environmental crisis. We enter a new realm of horror as the movie forces us to reckon with the very real possibility that we are currently—right now, not in some fictional near future—witnessing our own death as a species.
Yet, even when faced with the truth of what we have done to ourselves and our future, we humans are still conceited enough to term our impending extinction “the end of the world.” It is no such thing. The world isn’t ending; it’s merely changing, transitioning to the next phase after the fleeting one that happened to include us. It’s existentially horrifying but it’s also beautiful how way life and time are essentially unstoppable. Forward and backward, we are just a part of the continuum, even if the “we” in question is just our cells and not our consciousness. It’s like the dark side of Cloud Atlas or, perhaps more appropriately given the film’s milieu of Southern decay, it’s what True Detective would look like with the full courage of its convictions. The environment is not our enemy. Our only enemy is within us, which makes it not our enemy at all. We resist it anyway, though, because awareness of our damage is what strengthens us. M. Night Shyamalan recently attempted to address that same notion with Split but that’s just one of many movies that feel half-baked when compared to the full throttle commitment of Annihilation.
Garland leaves nothing unconsidered here; even the opening, in which the meteor hurtles through our atmosphere, turns out not to be just a cool shot but a visual foreshadow of the climax. Yet that doesn’t mean everything wraps up neat and tight like one of Christopher Nolan’s puzzle boxes. Rather, despite all it has to say and all of its hard sci-fi pontifications, Annihilation is the very rare movie of this scale to be willing to look you in the eye and say, “I don’t know.” It’s terrifying. It’s beautiful.